Monday, 22 June 2020

Why empathy is a force for social justice - Garry Parsons

Last week my first collaboration with author Simon James Green Llama Glamarama was published. This is a picture book about a llama called Larry who has a secret passion for dancing. The cover is a shiny, sparkly gold and Larry holds a glittering red bowler hat (inspired by Sally Bowles’ hat in the movie Cabaret) and a rainbow feather boa. It's jolly and it's camp!

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Back in January, the publicity team at Scholastic began firming up plans for bookshop events and some literary festival appearances in anticipation of a June publication date for Llama Glamarama that coincided with UK Pride month. Plans revolved around a theme of celebration, with music and dancing being the focus, something akin to a child-friendly Pride march with a lively, fun carnival vibe.
Simon and I had glittery hats, rainbow scarves and a disco playlist with dance moves that we were planning to share with the kids.

However, not unlike the rest of the world, we hadn't planned for the arrival of a global pandemic, nor had we expected to be the witnesses of such a terrible event in the USA. 

So, with event plans cancelled and bookshops closed, our launch day, like that of many other new publications became entirely virtual,  in an online world reverberating with everyone's reactions to these traumas, expressed with anger, sympathy and everything in between.
The idea of bringing a jolly, camp book with a shiny, sparkly gold cover into a world suffering from unprecedented levels of fear had me feeling a little nervous. My concern was that it could, at best, seem like just a bit of light relief or, at worst, trivial, banal and uncaring.

Undaunted, we prepared a downloadable party pack of things to make, eat and colour along with a jolly Spotify playlist for children to host their own Glamarama carnival party at home. A conscious effort to promote the book through its fun and colourful nature. This is a picture book after all!

But my concerns were missing the point. Larry’s story in Llama Glamarama is not about trying to find diversions from the world’s problems or denying they exist by offering rainbows and glitter as a distraction.  Larry’s story is an exploration of believing in yourself. His journey to get there is not easy and is even a little painful to see at times.  

Llama Glamarama Simon James Green & Garry Parsons - Scholastic

As author and illustrator, our collaborative aim was to elicit empathy for Larry’s plight, inviting the reader to step into his shoes, just for a moment (cowboy boots actually, inspired by a pair worn by Dolly Parton).

Dolly Parton. Camp icon and children's literacy promoter

Over the last decade neuroscientists have discovered that most of us have empathy wired into our brains, debunking the notion that we are solely self-interested creatures.
A Cambridge University study led by Maria Nikolajeva, Professor of Education, found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think”.

Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How Can I Get It 

“We are homo empathicus  says writer and cultural thinker Roman Krznaric, founder of The Empathy Library. “There has been an extraordinary shift … a concept that has been buried in psychology textbooks for nearly a century – empathy – is coming to be seen as one of the fundamental forces for tackling global challenges.”
Krznaric goes on to explain that a crucial method of expanding our empathy is by making the imaginative leap into other people’s lives through books and films.

Of course we all knew this already on some level.  We’ve all been moved by words and images we’ve read and by movies we’ve watched that have touched us. But in murky times like these, where the challenges of the world are so apparent, to consider actively developing empathy through reading seems like the best action to take.

Joseph Coelho

Writer Joseph Coelho put it like this:
"Focusing on the young and developing their empathy skills strikes me as the best possible action we can take in these troubling times, equipping the next generation with the tools to help them avoid the storms we find ourselves in, storms that are very much a result of a lack of empathy, an inability to communicate and an unwillingness to understand."

So for the youngest readers it starts with picture books.
Looking through my book shelves at home I’ve picked out a few picture books that I enjoy because they take me on that imaginative leap Roman Krznaric describes.  

As an illustrator I’m drawn to the moment in each of these stories where the character hits the lowest level just before they undergo a realization or an experience that transforms them or their situation for the better, when we as the reader are invited to pause and feel what it’s like to be in their shoes.
Perfectly Norman Tom Percival - Bloomsbury

Me and My Fear Francesca Sanna - Flying Eye Books

The New Neighbours Sarah McIntyre - David Fickling Books

The Lion Inside Rachel Bright & Jim Field  - Orchard

Melrose and Croc Emma Chichester Clark - HarperCollins

Piper Emma Chichester Clark - Andersen Press

Developing empathy helps children understand their own and other people's feelings and becomes the foundation for building good relationships. Empathy is a force for social justice and if there ever was a time when we need it, it’s got to be now.


For a wealth of information on promoting empathy through reading as a core life skill visit the Empathy Lab website.

Find out more about Roman Krznaric and the Empathy Library here.

Garry Parsons is an illustrator of children’s books. 
LLama Glamarama is written by Simon James Green and published by Scholastic

Garry Parsons @icandrawdinos

Further reading.


Jane Clarke said...

Absolutely agree that picture books can help foster empathy, thanks for your post, Garry, and much-needed sprinkling of Llama Glamorama :-)

Pippa Goodhart said...

Llama Glamorama looks a wonderful story, and I'm so glad it ends with colour, dancing, and joy! You're right that empathy is needed by our children almost above any other sort of learning. Thank you for the book suggestions!